The trouble with “Max” is that it’s difficult to take a movie seriously that has a pre-Reich Adolf Hitler as one of its principal characters. In fact, it’s difficult sometimes to tell whether the movie even WANTS to be taken seriously, though I ultimately have little doubt that it does.

But when we hear lines like, “You’re a hard man to like, Hitler” and, “Wanna go out for drinks, Hitler?,” what should our reaction be? We have seen “The Producers” and have experienced the catharsis in ridiculing the most evil man of the 20th century through satire and irony. How can we view this kind of dialogue as anything but winkingly self-referential?

How about when the young Hitler (Noah Taylor), in the military in Munich in 1918, tells his fellow soldiers, “I don’t believe in anti-Semitism”? He elaborates to explain that anti-Semitism should come through government means rather than through emotion — that is, he IS anti-Semitic, but not for personal reasons — but upon hearing that initial line, what should we do? Smirk? Laugh? Wince?

“Max” makes us do a lot of that; it’s difficult to get a grasp on what its tone is. The title character, played by John Cusack, is a Jewish art dealer who lost his arm in World War I. He is glib and intelligent, as John Cusack characters are wont to be, and when he meets Hitler, the latter is an angry would-be artist who seeks Max’s input on his work. Max tells him that if he’d put as much energy into his art as he does into his political tirades — a recent pastime of his — he would be a success.

It is intriguing to watch Max’s efforts to channel Hitler’s passion in a productive direction, especially because we know such attempts will ultimately fail. It is also noteworthy to see suggestions that some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and war-mongering were fueled by the German military he was already a part of, and to see the connections he draws between politics and art. Both are a means of controlling people’s emotions, after all.

But in the end, despite earnest performances from Cusack and Taylor, and what one assumes was earnestness on the part of writer/director Menno Meyjes, “Max” registers falsely. It doesn’t offer audiences any way of gripping what its point is, or even its attitude toward its subject.

C+ (1 hr., 48 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a little violence, some sexual vulgarity.)